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Classic Tracks: DJ Shadow ‘Midnight In A Perfect World’

Produced, Engineered, Mixed By DJ Shadow By Tom Doyle
Published October 2017

Classic Tracks

DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing wasn’t just a staggering technical achievement. It also reimagined a whole musical genre.

As a teenager growing up in the ’80s in the suburbs outside Sacramento, California, Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, felt a huge distance away from the hip-hop centre of New York. However, that didn’t stop him falling in love with the genre and the idea of beatmaking. More importantly perhaps, he already understood that hip-hop could be about more than simply sampling a James Brown drum break and looping it. Davis wanted to take the form much further.

“People like Afrika Bambaataa and Steinski and Grandmaster Flash showed me that hip-hop was so much broader than what people acknowledged it as being,” he says today. “It was about exploring music that you were denied access to.”

The young Josh Davis also felt strongly that hip-hop didn’t get anything like the respect it deserved. “Hip-hop was shit on by the mainstream press all through the ’80s,” he laughs. “I would read these statements and these blanket assumptions about hip-hop and just think to myself, ‘Well, somebody really needs to readdress this perception of hip-hop as being just this theft culture.’ Or, y’know, like, ‘It’s not musical, it doesn’t have any reference points to anything else.’

“I guess on the one hand growing up outside of the cauldron of hip-hop culture, all the way on the West Coast in a small town, you could argue that, ‘Well, how could this person possibly know anything about hip-hop or its meaning?’ But I think it’s the quest to understand the culture and to be a part of the culture and to be defined by the culture that in some ways gives you a unique perspective on the totality of it. Because it wasn’t just outside my front door. I really had to seek it out.”

In the ’90s, Davis was to help reshape hip-hop into a form blending variously slowed-down or rapid, pyrotechnic beats with collages of atmospheric instrumental or vocal samples, creating a cinematic sound that was labelled trip-hop. It reached a landmark point with the 1996 release of the debut DJ Shadow album Endtroducing, best known for its haunting, downtempo standout, ‘Midnight In A Perfect World’.

But while Endtroducing was a groundbreaking record comprised entirely of samples — it even made its mark in the Guinness Book Of Records in 2001 as the First Completely Sampled Album — Davis felt he was just the latest artist to take a step forwards in the evolution of hip-hop. In fact, in the album’s liner notes he was careful to list the people he felt were the innovators and masters who’d inspired him, including Kool Herc, Rick Rubin, Trevor Horn, Arthur Baker and Prince Paul.

“I stated pretty clearly in the liner notes what my influences were,” he says, “and who kind of navigated and cleared the path before me. I wanted to be really upfront about all the influences and the people that steered me to where I was.

“Of course, when I was writing all that,” he adds, “I had no idea that Endtroducing would be anything, or that anybody would still want to talk to me about it all these years later. But I did feel for whatever reason that it was important that people knew that it didn’t just come out of nowhere, that Endtroducing didn’t just fall out of the sky. There was very definitely a road map there.”

Best Foot Forward

Josh Davis started trying to hard-cut records together into sonic montages in his teens, initially using a cassette recorder to create what he calls his ‘pause tapes’. Then, in 1987, at the age of 15, he got his first pair of turntables and began to mix records on the fly. Later, adding a Yamaha MT100 four-track cassette recorder to his setup, he started producing his own remixes.

“If I had a break on a record,” he remembers, “I would usually allocate the first track to the beat. The second track would be whatever the next most important element was, whether it was a guitar riff or a bass line. Then there would be a track for scratches, usually, and there would probably be a track to overlay an a cappella. I used to do that a lot back then, to kind of road-test my beats or get accustomed to doing traditional arrangements were I ever to work with an MC. I’d get an existing hip-hop track that came out with an a cappella on a 12-inch and overdub that.”

Out of this bedroom method, Davis created mixes appropriating rhymes from rappers including Rakim and Latee. Enterprisingly, he then began sending these tracks out to record labels and radio stations. “Just to kinda test the water,” he says. “I knew that the samples I was finding were up to par with what I felt like my contemporaries were doing. But obviously my equipment was not up to par. So I guess it was really kind of like, ‘Hey guys, imagine what I could do with real equipment?’”

The legendary basement of Rare Records in Sacramento. The legendary basement of Rare Records in Sacramento. It was a scheme that worked. Davis landed himself a gig as a DJ on KDVS, the University Of California’s campus radio station, and commissions for official remixes released on the Hollywood BASIC label. One of his early champions was New York DJ Stretch Armstrong, who Davis asked for advice about equipment, pointing him in a direction that was to prove highly significant.

“He was one of the people that received one of my tapes and was complimentary about it,” Davis recalls. “I called him and I said, ‘I wanna get a sampler,’ but I didn’t want to get what everyone else had, an [E-mu] SP1200. I felt that everybody had already staked their claim on it, y’know, from DJ Premier to Large Professor to Pete Rock. I asked him if there were any alternatives that he was aware of, and he said, ‘Well I’ve heard of this thing called an MPC60, but I don’t know anybody that’s used it yet. But if you’re trying to get off on a different foot or with a different angle, that would certainly be a cool thing.’”

Davis duly borrowed money from anyone and everyone he could and, in October of 1992, got his hands on the machine that was to be vital to his sound, the Akai MPC60. He remembers that as soon as he got it back home, he stayed up all night determinedly learning how to program it. “It was kind of this endless fever dream of trying to get through the manual,” he laughs. “I understood the basics of sampling, obviously from listening to records, and I had this stockpile of records that I wanted to flip.

“I think the very first beat that I made was with a break off a 45 by a group called the O’Jahs. It was just a standard kind of fast break and I added some things to it. But it took a long time because I couldn’t figure out certain things. The menus were not very intuitive, and there were a lot of limitations to what they could show you and the amount of information they could give you at any one time. You had to scroll through menus. There was a lot of referring back and forth to the manual and making little asterisks in the manual. I don’t think I went to sleep until about 6am that day because I just really wanted to complete a beat.”

Very quickly, Davis began building up his own distinctive libraries of sounds. “It wouldn’t be a library in the sense of, y’know, here’s 50 kicks, or, here’s 50 snares, in the same way that we think of those kinds of sounds being available to us now,” he points out. “At the time it was more, ‘Well, I have 12.5 seconds of stereo sampling... let me now throw this kick in there or this kit in and see what I can extract from it... let me now throw this bass line in.’ It was a reductive process of trying to strip everything down to only its most important elements.”

Davis learned how to work with the limitations of the MPC60, and even turn them to his stylistic advantage. “There were a few techniques that I developed,” he says. “Obviously if a sound wasn’t a massively stereo signal, I would resample it in mono just to save that space. I realised early on that one of the things that set a lot of my beats apart was the fact that if I did retain from the break, like, three clean snares and three or four clean kicks and a little handful of clean hats, I would switch between them without repeating. If you had 20 different sequences, I would be switching up the kicks and the snares. The more you switched that stuff up, the more it had a natural feel and you started to lose that kind of robotic same hat, same kick and same snare playing over and over again.

“Pete Rock was a big influence in that respect. Not that he did the exact same thing. But if you go back and listen to the Mecca & The Soul Brother album [1992], he almost never repeats the same drum pattern. All the way through, there’ll be a different little accent on the snare or a different this or a different that. It was like, ‘OK, he’s not just writing the drum sequence and then only changing maybe a fill once in a while, like, right before the chorus. He’s changing the programming of the drums for the entire duration of the song.’ So things like that mattered.”

Josh Davis today, in front of an impressive EMS Synthi 100 system.Josh Davis today, in front of an impressive EMS Synthi 100 system.

Simple Setups

DJ Shadow’s breakthrough release was the rolling groove of the single ‘In/Flux’, which in 1993 was released in the UK on James Lavelle’s Mo’ Wax label. At this point, although he was creating his tracks on the MPC60 in his apartment, Davis took the results to fellow hip-hop producer Dan ‘The Automator’ Nakamura’s San Francisco studio The Glue Factory to mix. The setup was based around a Mackie 16-channel desk and Alesis eight-track ADAT, and to Davis, it seemed fairly advanced at the time.

“I think the studio that he had when I first went there in ’93 is probably still fancier than what I have going on now,” he laughs. “I’m definitely not a gear head and never have been. I’ve never had patience for, like, patchbays, or trying to figure out how to wire this together with this. The space itself was crude and odd, in the sense that you had to climb a ladder up into it. It was like a hatch, basically. If you recorded vocals, you had to literally open this hatch and talk down to the person below you. It was interesting, and it was very hot. It wasn’t well ventilated and the equipment gave off a lot of heat, so it was a real sweatbox in there.

“But in terms of the gear that was there, it was fairly state of the art. He has the right kind of temperament for trying out new gear. So it was good in that respect. I mean, he taught me a lot. I knew next to nothing about how to mix a record, or what compression did — so many other things that I take for granted now. The only thing I had to go on was listening to other records and knowing, like, OK, I think the beat should be louder, the bass should be this way or that way.”

In 1994, Davis also bought himself an Alesis ADAT for his home studio, and discovered that striping SMPTE timecode onto one track could allow him to run multiple passes of his MPC beats and samples. “Just as with the four-track,” he says, “I would do bounces of the eight tracks, or the seven tracks because one track was SMPTE. Then I’d run another six tracks down again or do any kind of overdubs.”

Meanwhile, if a particular track only required one stereo recording of the MPC, and so didn’t require SMPTE, it freed up the other six tracks for Davis to have scratching fun and games. He remembers the frenetic beats of ‘The Number Song’ from Endtroducing being a prime example. “Scratches were always done after the fact,” he says. “I have some ADAT tapes that I heard a few years ago where it was just ‘The Number Song’ right off the MPC, mixed, but with a bunch of scratch takes over the top on all the other tracks.”

Found Sounds

Classic TracksKey to the DJ Shadow sound at the time, of course, was his love of crate digging for obscure records to sample. As a frequent customer of the now-legendary Rare Records in Sacramento, it was only after five years that its proprietor finally allowed Davis access to the store’s basement, an Aladdin’s Cave of piles and piles of dusty old vinyl.

“The patriarch of the store, a guy named Ed, he didn’t suffer fools,” Davis remembers. “He didn’t want people poking around. I kind of got the impression that you had to earn it with him. It was a good five years of showing up and paying for your records and not making a fuss and not asking a lot of stupid questions, and asking the right kinds of questions, to make his ears kind of perk up a little and go, ‘Oh, this isn’t just somebody that I deal with on a regular basis. This is someone that really is invested in records and gets it.’

“I remember him saying, ‘Well, if you think this is a lot of records, the whole basement is filled and it’s even bigger than the floor up here.’ Me and my friend that I used to go around buying records with at that time, we both thought he was basically just bullshitting us. Then one time he said, ‘Well y’know, we’ve got five minutes ‘til close. Why don’t you go down the stairs and have a look?’ It was just one of those moments where it was like, ‘Holy fuck, this is insane.’”

Davis insists, however, that he didn’t make his record selections on the basis that the more obscure they were, the better. “It wasn’t just about obscurity, and that’s something that I’ve tried to point out a lot through the years. I mean, I sampled Björk and Metallica on the album. I think the point more than obscurity — because obscurity in itself is not a virtue in my opinion — was about just exploring things that I felt other beatmakers weren’t exploring.”

One of Josh Davis’ greatest vinyl discoveries was the 1969 album Songs Of Experience by the then largely forgotten Californian composer/producer David Axelrod, and in particular, the melancholic piano figure of its track ‘The Human Abstract’, set to become the central hook of ‘Midnight In A Perfect World’. “I thought the whole album was amazing,” Davis enthuses. “It was one of those records I would just play to everybody else in my kind of little record-digging crew. We were all fans of the space of it. I’ve always described Axelrod’s music as a wolf in easy listening clothes.”

Davis mixed the Axelrod sample with a beat he’d created in his MPC using a slowed-down break from a track by ’60s US psychedelic soul band Rotary Connection. “It was one of those things that I probably spent three or four hours on at the time,” he says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the drum track. But I played it for my friend and I was like, ‘Listen to this. There’s something really cool about this and I don’t think I could ever repeat it.’

“I feel like the drums on ‘Midnight In A Perfect World’ are a great example of a combination of all of my favourite bespoke techniques that I was doing on the MPC at the time, which I kind of referenced earlier. Another one of my favourite techniques at the time, so that nothing ever felt choppy, was actually sequencing a hat or a kick before you hear it, so that it fades in and fades out. There’s a bit of air before you actually hear it. It’s almost like every kick and hat and snare in that drum track is fading in and fading out, as opposed to, y’know, boom, I’m gonna cut it right on the downbeat, and put it right on the two beat and the three beat and the four. It’s like everything is phasing and fading in and out.”

With the beat and Axelrod piano motif in place, Davis added layers to the track incorporating samples including the phased Fender Rhodes chords from Finnish jazz-fusion artist Pekka Pohjola’s ‘The Madness Subsides’ (1975), the eerie flute-like strings from New York avant garde composer Meredith Monk’s ‘Dolmen Music’ (1981) and a loop of a single word from rapper Akinyele’s ‘Outta State’ (1993) to provide the ‘midnight-midnight-midnight’ hook.

“I just used to play records over the top,” Davis remembers. “Obviously I liked to find isolated elements. When I found a voice or a bass line or a piano that was isolated, I felt like those were good opportunities for me to stack things in the track without it starting to feel cluttered. Y’know, as soon as you have a lot of little rhythm sections clanging around, the house becomes unwieldy at that point. That was another technique, I guess. I felt like with patience and a lot of listening to records and a lot of digging, you could find that flute, you could find those isolated conga drums or whatever. That was something I was willing to spend the time to look for.”

The main melody for ‘Midnight In A Perfect World’, meanwhile, was provided by the ethereal female voice on ‘Sower Of Seeds’, a track from the 1976 album Love Is As Open As Your Heart by US soul band Baraka. “It was in the 50 cent bin,” Davis recalls. “It’s a really hard record to find, actually, and I haven’t seen my personal copy of that record in about 20 years. It’s literally lost somewhere in my collection.”

Mixing In A Perfect World

Josh Davis mixed ‘Midnight In A Perfect World’ and the rest of Endtroducing at The Glue Factory. In some ways, it was an incredibly simple process. “My concept of mixing at that time was basically volume, pan, reverb, delay,” he laughs. “That was pretty much all I knew how to do. I didn’t know how to bus anything.”

At the same time, Dan The Automator was always around for, if not hands-on involvement in the mixes, at least words of advice for Davis in moments where he was stuck. “It’s always been a difficult balance for me to give him the credit that I feel that he deserves,” Davis admits. “Because, mostly, he was hands-off. Mostly I would show up and he’d basically switch everything on and be like, ‘OK, have fun, let me know when you wanna eat something and we’ll go get something to eat.’

“But by the same token, there were also a lot of key pivotal moments where we’d be out getting food and I’d say, ‘Yeah, I’m really struggling, I don’t know what to do about this bass line, I can’t get things to sound how I want.’ He would kind of talk me through it and be like, ‘When we get back, I’ll show you something and maybe it’ll be what you’re looking for.’ And then those situations, that’s where a lot of breakthroughs happened. That’s where I feel like it was a really good example of somebody basically not butting in, not kind of messing with your vibe, but being accessible when you needed them.”

Instant Classic

Classic TracksEndtroducing was hugely acclaimed on its release in September 1996 and has since gone on to become regarded as one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever made. Reissued in deluxe form last year for its 20th anniversary, it’s a record that Josh Davis says he can’t feel nostalgic for, since it’s one that still figures massively in his current career.

“I feel like Endtroducing is a record that’s with me all the time. I mean, there really has never been, in 21 years, more than maybe a three-month duration where I’m not either bouncing down some old DAT tapes that have alternative mixes, or trying to find the stems to send to somebody for a remix, or putting together a DJ set where I’m playing this track or that track. For obvious reasons, I probably haven’t listened to the album front to back in a really long time. But it’s constantly with me, it’s constantly around me. I mean, I’m on tour right now and I play many of the songs you would expect that I’d play, so I hear it pretty much daily and I’m fine with that.”

Davis’ trusty old MPC60, though, is sadly long gone from his setup. Over successive DJ Shadow albums, however, he has progressed through variations on it: upgrading to an MPC2000 for his production of Unkle’s 1998 album Psyence Fiction, then MIDI’ing two of them together for the second DJ Shadow album The Private Press, released in 2002.

“I basically had nearly unlimited sample power and chop power,” he says. “But after The Private Press, I felt like it was important to switch things up. I had purchased Pro Tools so I was fully up and running on that. There’s probably two or three songs on [2006’s] The Outsider where the initial ideas or sketches were done on an MPC. It’s been I’d say 13, 14 years since I used one.

“I will say though that in I think about 2008, I got whatever was new at that time [the MPC5000], thinking, ‘Oh I kinda miss it, let me see what the new version’s like.’ But I just couldn’t go back. It seemed a bit silly to me, knowing what was possible within stuff like Maschine. Once you go into the software synth world, it’s really hard to legitimise going back into the box.”

The Sound Is Everything

Davis made most of the latest DJ Shadow album, 2016’s The Mountain Will Fall, using Ableton and mixing samples with live performances. To him now, every sound source — whether it be a horn part he’s written or a modular synth experiment that he takes away and chops up — is effectively a sample to be shaped and moved around.

“Whether I take a kick drum from a dusty old record,” he says, “or a live session recording or a drum machine or a synthesizer, it really just comes down to how I manipulate it, how I bend it, what I force it do, what I allow it to do. I mean, I’ve sampled off television. Many people have walked around with a tape recorder and sampled found sounds. So I think the idea of sampling in 2017 is simply the manipulation of sound itself.”